12 years in the making.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does something I’ve never seen another movie do: it captures time in a bottle. Filmed over the course of twelve years, the movie gives us the opportunity to watch as an ordinary boy grows up. When the film begins, he’s six years old. When it ends, he’s eighteen. We feel as if a life – not ours, but one that seems real and familiar – has flashed before our eyes.
The sheer patience and perseverance of Linklater’s approach to filming this project plays a big role in Boyhood‘s effectiveness (there’s something astonishing about seeing the actors gradually age over the course of the film, particularly when you contrast it to the artifice of films that try to pull off something similar with makeup), but this isn’t one of those cinematic experiments that breaks new technical territory while merely delivering an adequate piece of storytelling. Every single segment of the movie benefits from perfectly-calibrated performances, attentiveness to the sort of minor real-life details other movies overlook and a sense of real humanity.
The boy is Mason (Ellar Coltrane, Fast Food Nation), who lives in Texas with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette, True Romance) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Waking Life). As the film begins, Mason’s estranged father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise) is making a renewed effort to be involved in the lives of his children. That effort grows stronger as the years pass, but Olivia is the one tasked with actually raising the kids.
The journey isn’t exactly a stable one. Olivia is one of those good women who somehow continually manages to find herself attached to deeply flawed men, one of whom – a college professor played by Marco Perella (A Scanner Darkly) – is at the center of the film’s most tense, terrifying stretch. The family shifts to different parts of Texas from year to year, and Mason repeatedly finds himself going to new schools with new friends. Meanwhile, Mason Sr. becomes an increasingly stable and reliable presence, offering fun weekend visits in which he liberally dispenses ever-evolving life advice.
The passage of time can be sharply felt throughout the entire film, and not just because the faces of the actors are growing a little older every few minutes. Linklater cleverly finds ways to incorporate the pop culture of the moment into the texture of every sequence, giving us a never-ending stream of effective nostalgia bursts as we flip through a catalogue of the music, movies, books and video games consoles of the 21st century.
Casting the film’s central figure was always going to be a risky decision – how can you be sure that a capable six-year-old actor will grow up to be a capable eighteen-year-old actor? – but Linklater chose wisely with young Mr. Coltrane. His performance is a beautifully soulful piece of work that expertly captures Mason’s shifting personality and interests. It’s remarkable to see the way he assimilates bits and pieces of what he sees and hears over the years into his own personality; filtering received wisdom through the lens of his own judgment.
Hawke and Arquette are the most well-known actors, and both deliver remarkable supporting performances. It’s impossible not to love Hawke’s charming rascal of a father, whose gradual changes – from left-wing radical to mild-mannered conservative, from self-centered drifter to responsible family man – feel remarkably authentic. Hawke manages to maintain the character’s core persona through all of these changes, reminding us that we think we’ve got the world figured out at nearly every stage of life (and often look back and discover that we didn’t).
Meanwhile, Arquette’s performance is arguably the film’s most moving, complex element. She’s a good woman who’s made a lot of accidental bad decisions, and is frequently forced to deal with the consequences of those decisions while trying to protect her children. Like a lot of children, Mason and Samantha seem oblivious to the sheer amount of effort she’s put into taking care of them, and a moment of self-discovery near the film’s conclusion is the film’s most profoundly heartbreaking moment.
Boyhood (Blu-ray) Criterion offers an excellent 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. This is a brand-new transfer, but to be honest I couldn’t tell a huge difference between this and the image offered by the original Blu-ray disc. The same applies to the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which does an exceptional job of blending the film’s assorted elements and is always a pleasure to listen to (a steady stream of spot-on musical selections fuel the film effectively). However, the supplemental package is full of great new stuff. First up is a commentary featuring Linklater, producer Cathleen Sutherland, editor Sandra Adair, assistant director Vince Palmo, Jr., production designer Rodney Becker, costumer designer Kari Perkins, casting director Beth Sepko-Lindsey and actors Marco Perella, Libby Villari and Andrew Villareal. As you might expect given that line-up, it’s heavy on technical commentary but is a consistently interesting listen. On a second disc (!), you get a new 50-minute documentary on the making of the film, an hour-long filmed conversation with Linklater, Arquette and Coltrane, a half-hour filmed conversation with Hawke and Coltrane, a video essay written by Michael Korensky, a video program of on-set photographs and a booklet featuring an essay by Jonathan Lethem. A fine package.
Boyhood is one of the great cinematic achievements of recent years, and a film that I expect will continue resonating with audiences for many decades to come. Criterion’s new Blu-ray release is top-notch. Highly recommended.